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Interview with Mike Hellweg

The “TFH Breeder’s Challenge” Champion and author of the book Culturing Live Foods was kind enough to participate in an interview on Monday May 23, 2011. He provided advice about fishkeeping and breeding techniques along with information about his own endeavors. For those of you who were unable to participate live, here is a transcript of Mike’s interview.

TFH Breeder's Challenge Champion Mike Hellweg

Crazygar: Before we begin the interview this evening, I would like to thank Mike Hellweg for being with us this evening. Mike has been on a busy tour circuit so I am sure he’ll enjoy not having to leave his house for this one!

Crazygar: This evening’s format will be slightly different as Mike has a few questions for us TFH Forum Staffers to answer, should be interesting…

Crazygar: Before I begin the interview, I would like to remind everyone about a few ground rules before proceeding:

Crazygar: 1) While the interview is in progress, I would like to ask everyone from refraining from popping in with a question or comment. Please write down your question, as we are having a small open forum at the end of the session.

Crazygar: 2) When the Open Forum begins, I will queue people on a first come first served basis. Remember, we only have a limited amount of time, so there can only be a limited amount of questions. If not all questions get answered, I am sure Mike will answer them via the PM system in time. Remember, like the rest of us, he has a life outside as well.

Crazygar: 3) Use the PRIVATE MESSAGE Command on the right hand side of your chat window to ask to be put in queue for a question, an updated list of “order” will sent (privately) as more participants increase.

Crazygar: 4) Please ensure its only ONE question. If there is time, you may have the opportunity to ask another one.

Crazygar: Now that the rules and welcomes are down, let’s begin…

Welcome to the TFH Forum Mike! It’s good to have you this evening. Are you ready?

MikeH: Ready to go!

Crazygar: Congrats on winning the Breeder’s Challenge! I thought Ted was going to be the winner! How did you feel after this was all over?

MikeH: After my slow start (compared to Ted’s lighting fast start) I thought Ted was going to win, too. When it was all over I was tired! I didn’t really realize how much work it was until the contest ended and I found myself with a lot of free time that I hadn’t had for much of the year of the contest.

MikeH: At the very end of the contest, after raising out the last of the fry and passing the breeders back to people who had loaned them to me, I actually let several tanks go empty for a few months. At one point, I had nearly 30 tanks that had no fish in them – a first for me!

Crazygar: Like I asked Ted, what was one species of fish that proved to be difficult during the year long contest?

MikeH: The one that proved to be the most challenging for me was the banjo cats – most likely the one I have is Dysichthys knerii. They dug out nests a few times, but I never got any eggs – at least none that I know of.

MikeH: Unfortunately, due to the volume of fish with which I was working, I really didn’t have time to sit in front of the tanks and just watch the fish, which is something I normally do on a daily basis.

Crazygar: Do you have any general advice for people wanting to breed fish?

MikeH: One of the most common things I run into is people asking how to breed a certain fish – usually something that is fairly challenging or even something that has never been bred in the hobby before. They keep asking questions, which is good, but then they never actually get around to working with the fish! They want every single thing to be perfect and ensure 100% success on the first try.

MikeH: It just doesn’t work that way. Each fish is an individual, and while I can tell you what they SHOULD do, only you can actually try to get your fish to spawn and find out what they WILL do. Instead of spending so much time trying to get everything perfect, try it. Get your hands wet.

Crazygar: The comradely between yourself and Ted is incredible. How did this all start?

MikeH: You read about my (and other breeders’) successes with spawning, but there are still plenty of failures. During the contest I had 169 successes. But I likely had 50 or more failures! The main difference is that I kept trying. So I would have to tell people who want to try their hand at breeding fish is to start with easy species, build up your confidence, then try something more challenging.

Crazygar: oops, my bad.

Crazygar: The comradely between yourself and Ted is incredible. How did this all start?

MikeH: No worries! I’ve known Ted for several years. I’m not even sure where we first met – I think it was at an ACA convention many years ago. Our fishkeeping philosophies are similar and we both like smaller fish, and we hit it off. We’ve been friends ever since. I’ve been up to visit him and talk to his club, and he’s been down to visit me and talk to my club. We actually planned out the Breeder’s Challenge in Ted’s kitchen while I was up there visiting.

Crazygar: You’ve done many articles, talks and even written a book. Did you have significant reason(s) behind writing Culturing Live Foods?

MikeH: There were several reasons. One of the most pressing to me was that THE live foods book by Charles Masters – the Encyclopedia of Live Foods, was thirty years old and really needed to be updated. Many of the food animals discussed had fallen out of favor with hobbyists, many new ones had appeared, and over the years many hobbyists had discovered new/easier protocols for culture than those in the Masters book.


MikeH: In addition, that book has become something of a “holy grail” of sorts. It is hard to find, and when it is offered for sale, it is really expensive. It was time for an update. I should mention that I still look up to Masters – I still consider his book an important and useful part of my aquatic library. David Boruchowitz was a huge help in getting the book going.

Crazygar: With Live Foods, what would you consider the most “gross” (I have to ask, I am sure a few of us are thinking this) and smelly of all them you have cultured?

MikeH: Smelly – that would have to be a culture of microworms that has gone bad. When I open a microworm culture that has gone bad in my basement fishroom, a few minutes later my wife will comment from upstairs something about the smell.

MikeH: As for all out gross, disgusting, etc. It would have to be houseflies, which I left out of the Culturing Live Foods book. I wanted to add them to the Raising Live Foods book I did for the TFH Complete Herp Care series, but when I went to the guy’s place that raises housefly maggots locally, I was almost knocked over by the overwhelming stench. No way was I even going to think about culturing them at home!

Crazygar: haha. What type of live food is the most time consuming of them all and why?

MikeH: I think that would have to be rotifers. First you have to culture the algae they eat and have that well-established, then you have to culture the rotifers. With their short lifespan, you can’t let up on the work, and you have to work with them pretty much every day.

Crazygar: With the wealth of information you’ve posted online regarding breeding fish, have you ever considered putting this into book format?

MikeH: Yes, I’ve actually got most of a breeding book written, but it appears to be a bad time in the publishing industry as publishers try to figure out the new electronic media and how that will affect traditional publishing.

MikeH: Personally, I’d still rather have a real book. 100 years from now someone can still go and pick up a copy of that book, search out the references, and find all of that. With electronic stuff, as time goes on and companies come and go, much of that, especially referenced material, will just disappear. There is a myth that once something is online it is there forever, but that isn’t necessarily true.

Crazygar: Your blog on TFH Magazine’s main website (​s/category/mike-hellweg/) is super informative. Have you ever considered putting this into book format as well? Diary of a Mad Aquarist comes to mind…

MikeH: Ha Ha! That is an interesting idea. I’ve read a couple of books like that, and all have been enjoyable reads. Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that.

Crazygar: One thing that comes directly to mind is that you generally work with smaller fishes (under 4”) as a general rule. Why is that?

MikeH: I’ve always been fascinated by miniature things. When I set up my first fishroom, it was in the second bedroom of a townhouse. I needed to have small tanks to keep the weight on the floor to a minimum, but still have more than one tank. So I had to keep small fish.

MikeH: Also, at one point I kept a really neat lungfish. As he grew, he became more and more aggressive. One day when I was cleaning his tank, he took a chunk out of my hand. That was enough. No big fish!

Crazygar: Ouch! That would do it for me as well. Out of all the fish that spawned, what was your favourite and why?

MikeH: The white cloud mountain minnow – Tanichthys albonubes. I’m not sure why, but I’ve just always liked them. I’ve had them many times over the years, and I still find just as much enjoyment of them now as I did 35 years ago when I discovered them for the first time.

Crazygar: On an average year, what do you think you spend on running your fishroom?

MikeH: My fishroom (100 + tanks) costs about $30 a month in electricity and about $10 a month in water and sewer costs. So it costs about $480 a year in utilities.

Crazygar: While I see that most of your experience is with Freshwater, have you ever ventured outside the realm of Freshwater and what type of tank was it?

MikeH: I mostly work with freshwater fish, but I have kept and bred a couple of species of seahorses over the years. I really like the diminutive Hippocampus zosterae. I would have done them during the contest, but I just never got around to them. I’ve also worked with several species of freshwater, brackish and marine pipefish.

Crazygar: Do you keep any aquariums that are mainly just for “show” only with no special intent in mind other than display?

MikeH: I’ve set up a couple of “show” tanks, but they quickly become working tanks. My wife has instructed me that at least the tank in the living room has to be a show tank. I set it up as an Amazon river tank with driftwood and a sand bottom, but it quickly became a breeding tank, too. It looks really cool, and most “fish people” who’ve seen it like it and know what it is immediately. Not the same for non-fish people who think it’s just a brown mess. I’ve promised her that it would become a “pretty” community tank, but I just haven’t had time to do that yet. One of these days…

Crazygar: I notice, like Ted, you do a lot of talks and conventions, how do you manage the time between family, work and fish?

MikeH: I try to limit my talks, and I no longer get to go to conventions unless I am speaking. Not because I don’t enjoy them, but just because I can’t justify the time. I’ve cut way back on the number of talks that I do, but I’m still gone 20 to 25 days a year on talks. But I’m getting better – it did get up to 50 days a few years ago! Maybe in another year or two I’ll have enough time to go to conventions again!

Crazygar: Of all your talks and conventions, what was the most memorable and why?

MikeH: They’re all memorable for one reason or another. I enjoy going to the Minnesota Aquarium Society because it is just an hour away (by air) and I have many friends up there.

MikeH: I loved Winnipeg and the snow that didn’t even phase the huge turnout…

MikeH: I love Chicago because I get to visit my friends at Shedd Aquarium, the first public aquarium I ever visited as a child. I still love going there.

MikeH: I enjoy the Salt Lake City club because we do all kinds of interesting things along with the talk – collect brine shrimp, go fossil hunting, etc.

MikeH: I enjoyed the Raleigh NC club’s annual show because we went collecting and I got to actually collect Banded Sunfish – one of my favorite North American native fish.

MikeH: There are many others and I enjoy them all. All are unique and I can’t really pick a “most memorable”.

Crazygar: On the issue of Aquarium Societies, can you define the importance of joining one or the usefulness of an Aquarium Society?

MikeH: Wow. To answer that in depth would take an entire hour all by itself! In short, there is the camaraderie of sharing your hobby with other enthusiasts. Unlike with online forums, you actually get to know local club members in person, and visit their fishrooms while getting to share yours with them.

MikeH: You don’t need to have a lot of fish or a lot of tanks to be active and have fun. Many of our club members only have a couple of tanks, and some of the most active long time members only have one! You have people that you can ask in person if you have questions or need help.

MikeH: We’ve helped club members build fishrooms, tear them down, move, etc. When someone is sick or traveling, there are people who can help care for fish or fishrooms. That’s a lot to ask of someone who doesn’t really know fish that well. Caring for 20 or 30 tanks isn’t that hard for someone who knows fishrooms already, but may overwhelm the casual pet sitter.

MikeH: Then there are other fun things – Swapping fish, plants and inverts; monthly programs; barbeques; dinners; raffles; mini-auctions; bowl shows; annual workshops; annual shows; competing for awards; club newsletters; having travel companions to visit other club’s events, conventions, public aquaria in other cities, etc. There are so many more!

Crazygar: Well said! Well said indeed. You have been in this hobby a long time, what do you consider the most technological breakthrough say in the last 20 years that has made fishkeeping all that easier?

MikeH: The number one invention has to be the Python No Spill Clean and Fill. It has made tank maintenance so easy that people have no reason not to do large, regular water changes.

Crazygar: Do you have any other hobbies other than Aquariums? Or Fish is where it’s at?

MikeH: Fish are my main hobby and take up most of my time, but yes, I have several. When I was young, a popular local radio host always said “never trust anyone who doesn’t have at least two hobbies”. I’ve always tried to live up to that.

MikeH: I collect books and have a few rare first editions going back to the mid-1800’s. I collect beer steins. I love Aroid plants (aquatic and terrestrial). I enjoy model trains (miniature scales – HO and N), and still occasionally build military models (WWII – ETO, 1/32 – 1/35 scale).

MikeH: I enjoy fossil hunting, fish collecting (in the wild – another benefit of club membership – having collecting buddies!), bird watching and used to be a fairly decent league bowler (236 average) until I broke my right middle finger several years ago.

Crazygar: Wow. Busy guy.

Crazygar: And now a different twist on things, Mike has some questions he’d like to ask us the TFH Forum Staffers regarding all things Aquarium, are you ready Mike?

MikeH: Ready if you are!

Crazygar: Ok, be gentle on us…

MikeH: The first question goes to Dutchman, the Mad Scientist of the TFH Forum Staffers. You have been working on a project regarding light in the Aquarium world, can you tell us about some of your findings?

Dutchman: I have collected emission spectra of fluorescent lights (and some LEDs) used in planted tanks. I have 44 spectra at the moment and I’m currently hunting for GE information. From these spectra you can derive various properties such as: Lumen, PAR, PUR, RED/BlUE ratio, and a rating which compares the tube’s spectrum to the solar spectrum. I also collect prices.

Dutchman: : Preliminary conclusions so far are: (1) Tubes with the best solar rating include the cheapest (±$6ea) but also the most expensive (±$35ea).

Dutchman: (2) It follows that there is little justification in buying expensive tubes, particularly if more than one tube per tank is required. In that case there are plenty of possibilities to combine different tubes with different spectra that complement each other to such an extent that the combination surpasses the performance of many “champion” tubes.

Dutchman: : (3) LEDs compare poorly to the solar spectrum, and they should not be used as a single light source. However, they are excellent at complementing sections of the spectrum of poorer fluorescent tubes.

MikeH: Thanks Dutchman, that is incredibly interesting and informative. Your research is posted here on the Forum correct?

Dutchman: Yes, and thanks Mike.

MikeH: The next question goes to Crazygar our Interviewer this evening. Gary, have you ever attempted live foods and why?

Crazygar: Yes we (Erin, aka Soul-Hugger my Girlfriend and Loach Hobbyist) have Mike. Unfortunately, all times were a disaster. Soul-Hugger and myself have attempted MicroWorms, African Red Earth Worms and Brine Shrimp.

Crazygar: Other than the Brine Shrimp, all were catastrophic failures due to one large factor: forgetfulness. We’ve discovered that live foods are unhappy about being forgotten about. The smell was unholy off the Microworms.

Crazygar: We were trying to alternate the diet of our fish and hoping that our Dicrossus filamentosa would breed. We’ve long since attempted less, time consuming and less difficult live food sources such as collection of insects and Gammarus pulex (Scuds here in Saskatchewan).

MikeH: Ha Ha! I know what you mean about the smell of a neglected microworm culture! You picked the easiest ones and still had trouble? Maybe you should ask the powers that be for a copy of my book!

MikeH: Just kidding… in all seriousness it might be best to focus on a single easy one, like microworms or brine shrimp, get that one down first, then try another instead of trying several at once. It’s just like fish keeping. Start out with one tank, get good at keeping it going, and add on from there.

Crazygar: As long as we don’t forget where we put it.

Crazygar: haha

Crazygar: Thanks Mike, this has been a good little twist on things. Your patience with me is commendable, you deserve a medal.. haha..

Crazygar: As we close on the end of the Interview, I would like to thank Mike Hellweg for taking the time to answer these questions that have been on our minds since the closure of the contest. I have one final question, and it’s totally random…. are you ready…?

MikeH: Okay…

Crazygar: (I can see you are worried) On the subject of Pickles (I love food), what is your favourite out of this list and why? (1) Dill Pickles (2) Pickled Onions (3) Pickled Hot Peppers?

MikeH: Dill pickles by far! Pickled onions in a martini, maybe. But hot peppers? Nah…

Crazygar: ROFL

Crazygar: I prefer pickled Onions, keeps people away…

MikeH: One of the ladies in my club makes great butter pickles…

Crazygar: On behalf of Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, the people whom have shown up for this event this evening, we’d like to thank you for your willingness to share and educate us in this wonderful hobby.

MikeH: Thank you Gary. And thanks to all of the folks at TFH for their support during the contest. We couldn’t have done it without you all. Especially, though I want to thank all of the readers of TFH. If you weren’t reading the magazine each month, none of this would have even been possible.

Crazygar: At this point, we’ll have an open Forum where you can ask Mike some questions in turn, please respect the question being asked by not typing until your turn. A transcript of this chat will be up shortly within the TFH Forum and TFH Magazine Website shortly. Thanks and Mike, I turn the floor to you for some questions. Remember, at 9pm (TFH Standard Time), the interview session concludes…

Crazygar: For line up, I have KJBhasRTS and FredO

Crazygar: KJB, you have a question for Mike?

freshfish: (to clarify for those who came in late, please pm crazygar here in the chat if you want to get in line to ask mike a question…)

KJBhasRTS: MIke I have been looking for Pipefish

KJBhasRTS: How did you get your original source for breeding

KJBhasRTS: and are live shrimp and young guppies a useful food source once they are adults. I also have daphnia?

MikeH: A few freshwater Asian species are available in the trade. For the American ones, I had to find someone in the area who would collect them.

KJBhasRTS: Oh and I liked your recent article on breeding them

MikeH: Young ghost shrimp and cherry shrimp are great for fresh and brackish species and aren’t too hard to culture. For marine species, mysis seem to work best.

MikeH: Young guppies might work with some of the larger species.

MikeH: Thanks! I hope you found it useful.

Crazygar: Thanks KJBhasRTS, your handle is hard to type… FredO has a question, after Scottfish…

Crazygar: FredO

FredO: I am a semi-retired General Surgeon and spend much of my free time in my fishroom (only seven tanks) with 100+ tanks Mike do you have a job outside of caring for your fish and writing about them? Thanks Fred

MikeH: Hi Fred. Fish have pretty much become my job. Another club member and I, after years of planning, are hoping to finally open a shop later this year…

Crazygar: Is that it Mike?

MikeH: I’ve also simplified care as much as possible…

MikeH: drilled tanks, overflows to drains, central fill system.

MikeH: And hiring my nephew to clean filters!

freshfish: lol

MikeH: That’s it Gary…

Crazygar: Ok, Scottfish (our resident Harasser of Forum Admins and Mods)…

ScottFish: I can’t believe you are going to make me ask Mike this. Okay, on a serious note: if you could be a fish, what fish would you be? (Thanks Gary.)

freshfish: ROFL

J.B.: lol

MikeH: Cute… I would be a seahorse.

Crazygar: Really?

J.B.: I’m curious…

freshfish: He wants to carry around babies.

Crazygar: Mike, can you elaborate on that?

MikeH: Yeah. I think they’re cool. And they’re not so easy to care for that it would be a challenge.

Crazygar: Good question Scottfish!

MikeH: Aside from the babies bit…

freshfish: hehehe

Crazygar: ROFL

ScottFish: I would be whatever eats otos (Gary’s favorite fish).

J.B.: are you saying you are somewhat “high-maintenance”, Mike…lol

MikeH: Actually, pretty laid back. Just like a seahorse. Mine actually figured out the currents in the tank and would just sit waiting for food to come by..

Crazygar: Ok, now we have N2Biomes up for a question (I gotta take a breath, laughing good over here)…

N2Biomes: Mike, how do you run you fishroom such that you have such a low electrical cost?

MikeH: My room is super insulated. I don’t need to use heaters at all. I also don’t use power filters. I just have a single Jehmco air pump running sponge filters in each tank.

MikeH: And florescent lights. single bulbs and now mostly CFL’s over each tank.

N2Biomes: That’s about how I run mine as well, I guess your electricity is less expensive than mine

MikeH: I do have a fan rigged up to a humidstat that pumps out the humid air. It’s a low wattage fan, too.

N2Biomes: My tanks are unlit, only daylight fluorescents on timers at ceiling level

MikeH: Yes, our electricity is about the lowest in the country – around 7 cents a KW hour.

N2Biomes: I do run a dehumidifier all the time, that’s what heats the room

MikeH: Humidifiers are pretty expensive to run.

MikeH: It’s good to use it as a heater, too.

N2Biomes: I run it at 50% now and 35% in winter.

Dutchman: llllllll

MikeH: I keep mine at 50% year round.

MikeH: Mold doesn’t start becoming a problem until around 60%.

Crazygar: Good question N2Biomes, as always a pleasure. Now we have my Girlfriend Soul-Hugger up to bat…

soul-hugger: Hello, Mike. We all know you like to write (I am a writer too but stick mostly to poetry) do you have any general advice for someone who might want to write about fish?

MikeH: Hi Erin. Sit and watch the fish. Take notes. Then write about your experiences. All of my articles cover first a bit about the fish’s history in the hobby, then my experiences with it. Then wait a few days and re-read it. Make changes. Wait again. Then, when you don’t make anymore changes, it’s good to go.

soul-hugger: Thanks, I think that is great advice. Not too much different really to the way I write poetry.

soul-hugger: Lots of patience involved, I think

MikeH: Except that you wouldn’t read my stuff outloud!

Crazygar: 1 Fish, 2 Fish.. wait that’s already been done.. Thanks Erin… Dr.Fred again…

MikeH: Yes, lots of patience.

Crazygar: FredO….

FredO: I observed Blue Gouramis breeding in a tank in my grade twelve biology class and became hooked on fish. Two summers working in a seed and pet shop and I had my tanks running. Mike how did you start in the hobby?

MikeH: With a goldfish when I was 3. My Mom let me go over to look at the fish at the drugstore. Back then drugstores sold fish, too. I’ve had fish ever since.

FredO: Nice start!!

Crazygar: Ok, 19ghost79 you are up….

19ghost79: Mike I have a group of 12 WC pterophyllum altum that are just over 2 years old. I am attempting to breed them. Any advice?

MikeH: Patience, a really big tank that is at least three feet deep (full grown altums are nearly 2 feet tall), lots of water changes with soft, acid water filtered over peat…

MikeH: And lots of live foods.

19ghost79: Diet?

19ghost79: pH is in the 4’s

19ghost79: tds is 50 or below

MikeH: I would feed them lots of things like cherry shrimp, small red worms, etc.

MikeH: Water parameters sound good. How big are they?

MikeH: And how big is your tank?

19ghost79: nose to the base of the tail – over 4 inches around 11 inches tall

19ghost79: They are crowded its a 120

MikeH: They’ve still got quite a bit of growing to do.

MikeH: And a 120 is way too small. A good excuse to buy a bigger tank!

19ghost79: I would like to be able to isolate a pair

19ghost79: A 120 should do fine right

MikeH: For a pair, yes. But in their current situation they might be too stressed to even think about spawning.

19ghost79: They fight alot. They do court and pick at the driftwood.

MikeH: The fighting is the problem. Not enough room…

MikeH: They are cichlids after all.

19ghost79: Thanks

Crazygar: Ok… Thanks 19ghost79, next up is Chris_Walker…

Crazygar: Chris, are you still here?

Chris_Walker: yep

Chris_Walker: Hi Mike…I enjoy reading your articles…I am a avid cichlid person now since 1977

MikeH: Thanks Chris!

MikeH: I keep a lot of dwarfs, and some Tangs and Victorians. I’ve just started keeping Mbuna…

Chris_Walker: One of the things that got me “hooked” was H. multispinosa breeding when I was a young teen

Chris_Walker: tangs and vics are some of my favs

MikeH: Yes, I enjoyed multis and even convicts when I was younger.

Chris_Walker: what was your first species to breen in one of your tanks and how old were you?

Chris_Walker: er to breed

MikeH: The first fish I remember spawning for me was the green swordtail. Zebra danios and others soon followed. My first cichlid was the angelfish.

Chris_Walker: do you take your own photos for most of your articles ?

MikeH: I take some of them. But Shari lets me know (very gently – by not publishing them!) that my photos aren’t really that good. I need to get a better camera setup.

Crazygar: haha

Chris_Walker: danios! that is pretty cool…angels are nice to expereince them spawning…I enjoy angels when spawning

Chris_Walker: Very cool…..thanks!!!!​ser/christopherwalker.html are photos of my fish…I would private message you but uncertain if i can

MikeH: I like the wild silvers the best. They’re hard to find now. I’ve got a nice group of wild Peruvians that are just starting to spawn now.

Crazygar: Thanks Chris. Now up is TFH Forum’s own Freshfish, the Moderator whom keeps us Admins in line…

freshfish: (tries, you mean…)

freshfish: Mike- what species of fish has been your biggest challenge ever, and what was the “trick” that finally worked for you with that fish?

MikeH: So far, Akysis vespa (or prashadi). I worked with them for almost a year before the contest, nothing. Then I gave up on them and they spawned. I discovered that baby cichlids that I was trying to raise for the contest turned out to be their ideal growth food!

freshfish: lol i had to google those- nice fish!

MikeH: Now that they’ve spawned, I keep finding little ones in the sand after I think the tank is empty…

Crazygar: Thanks Freshfish, and now JakeJ…

JakeJ: Hello Mike! I have a question concerning writing articles, specifically for magazines.

MikeH: Okay Jake. Fire away.

JakeJ: Do you have any tips for a younger author (me! I’m 14) for writing article and getting them submitted?

MikeH: Great to have you already writing for the hobby! The easiest thing is to write what you know. Write about your experiences – both good and bad.

JakeJ: The one I am currently working on right now is about a new type of freshwater planted aquarium known as riapriums (riparium being the singular).

MikeH: Then you can contact the editor directly and ask about submitting your article. Pictures help a lot, too.

JakeJ: Done and done! I have high quality pictures lined up, and I contacted the editor as my first step.

MikeH: Riparian tanks are becoming very popular. It is a good thing to write about something that is on the cutting edge. It gives you a better chance of getting published.

MikeH: Your already on your way, then. Good luck, and I look forward to reading your article!

J.B.: JakeJ…one of our younger “Mentors” here on the forum is Hudson T.Ensz and he’s written some articles for TFH Magazine. Perhaps you could Private Message him here in the forum and I’m sure he’d share some tips with you…from one young writer to another

JakeJ: Ok! Will do! Thanks much Mike and J.B.!

MikeH: Oops. Sorry. You’

MikeH: re on your way. Grammar…

tfh_shari: Hi Jake, please take a look at our submission guidelines on

MikeH: Shari’s the Editor, Jake.

Crazygar: Thanks JakeJ, now comes firefish423…

firefish423: so I have a 20 gal tank of 2 neolamprologus brevis and 2 jewel cichlids. Everything is going fine. Then the jewels breed. The jewels are showing normal behaviour. No more than usual aggression, and the brevis are fine.Then I come home from school one day to find the fry gone, the female nearly dead and the Male super agressive. I flush the female and male to avoid any damage 2 the brevis. Wat went wrong??? the BTW JakJ im 14 2!!! Didn’t realize there was anything else our age on the site

JakeJ: Yep! The second thing on my list!

firefish423: Good 2 know that there are a few younger hobbyists here 2.

MikeH: Nothing went wrong. The jewels and probably the brevis were both just doing what comes naturally. The male’s aggression is used to guard the perimeter, but sometimes in a tank there just isn’t enough room and his guarding instinct makes him try to drive any perceived threat, even his own mate, away.

MikeH: But it’s hard to know exactly what happened without actually having seen it.

MikeH: BTW, cichlids often eat their spawns if they are stressed.

firefish423: Got it. Thanks. Good 2 know it was entirely my fault. I had the lives a quite a few fishies on my mind. Thanks 4 the help!

MikeH: It’s usually best to keep pairs of cichlids in tanks by themselves. Sometimes you can use danios or hatchetfish as dithers to help keep up the pair bond.

Crazygar: Next up is jpguppy08…

firefish423: Got it.

jpguppy08: Hi Mike. I’m very interested in starting to breed Killifish, either annuals or nons. Do you have any specific species that you would recommend for beginners? I’ve only bred guppies and bettas as of now (I’m only 21 and in college, so I am lacking the room to do much more). I have tried Australe once, but no luck- it was a pair kept together. They always seemed to try but no young.

MikeH: It’s great to have all the young folks here tonight! I’d recommend you start out with one of the Fundulopanchax gardneri variants. You can usually find them online, through the American Killifish Association, or through local club auctions. They’re easy to breed and the fry are easy to raise.

MikeH: Australe are a bit more challenging – not usually the best to start with.

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jpguppy08: That was another species I was looking into. I saw the Australe at a club auction and thought I might as well give them a shot. Thanks!

MikeH: If you can raise young bettas, you can raise gardneri.

Crazygar: Thanks jpguppy08… …and Scottfish again…

ScottFish: Thanks. I seem to be the only person who can’t breed Blue Pearl Shrimp. I’ve had a dozen for 9 months in a stable planted 10 gal. species tank with good water numbers, but no little guys.

MikeH: May seem like a silly question, but did you have both sexes?

ScottFish: 12 –I like my chances.

MikeH: Yes, odds are almost 100%. But it’s the first question I always ask. You’d be surprised how many times the answer is no.

ScottFish: I know I’ve never seen any carrying eggs

MikeH: Are you feeding them or just letting them graze?

ScottFish: feeding them a variety of goodies

MikeH: Are you keeping them around or above 80? I’ve heard they don’t spawn when the water is too cool…

ScottFish: 76, I’ll raise it and play some romantic music tonight.

MikeH: The other thing to look at is the nitrogenous waste in the water. Especially this time of year, even tap water often has some nitrites or nitrates in the water from farm runoff.

ScottFish: I’ll double check the water numbers. Thanks.

Crazygar: Thanks Scott, and now I have a question to ask…

Crazygar: On the question of breeding fish, what have been your experiences with Dicrossus filamentosus? Erin and I have 8 and none seem “interested”. Should we play mood music to make things more romantic for them?

MikeH: Try Handel’s Water Music…

MikeH: Sorry Gary…

Crazygar: ROFL

ScottFish: (who is breeding the fish or Gary and Erin; sorry Erin)

MikeH: The usual questions> Do you have both sexes (males have a lyretail)? Are they old enough? Softer water? Plants – mine spawned on Anubias leaves.

Crazygar: We have 3 Males, 5 Females. No plants, we keep them in a Blackwater Biotope.

Crazygar: pH around 6.4, temp 80F

soul-hugger: ROFL, Scott

MikeH: I think in the wild they like to spawn on plants. Mine didn’t spawn in a driftwood only tank until I added some Anubias. They spawned within two days of my adding those. Not sure why. The rest of your water parameters sound fine.

freshfish: ya’ll know how old they are? I was thinking you guys just got them recently…?

MikeH: The males do get to be about 4 inches long, with females an inch or so shorter.

Crazygar: Really. Now that is interesting. I think they are about 6 months old. Not fully mature but lyretails are showing well.

MikeH: They may not yet be old enough.

soul-hugger: They are nowhere near that size yet. Still babies, I think.

Crazygar: Ok, might have to put on the mood music anyways

MikeH: Patience is a major factor. Mood music doesn’t hurt…

soul-hugger: Perhaps the plants will help, have to try that in the future.

MikeH: Another trick is to feed them worms. Worms always seem to help get fish in the mood.

Crazygar: Thanks Mike, and next up is KJBhasRTS….

KJBhasRTS: Ladies and Gentlemen Burt Bacharach

KJBhasRTS: Mike, have you ever tried to breed any Puffer species or know anyone who has?

MikeH: I’ve bred the little Carinotetraodon travancoricus. Also got eggs from lorteti. A guy in our club just did the arrowhead puffer.

KJBhasRTS: Wow, I wish I was closer to your club. Any secrets or tricks of the trade to deal with aggression beyond multiple tanks?

MikeH: Keeping pairs in large, well planted tanks seems to help. Also, feeding them constantly.

KJBhasRTS: Thank you Mike. I will try again with Fangs

MikeH: Give the male a place for a territory, and lots of places for the female to hide until they’re in the mood. Also, know that most puffers in the trade are babies and may take a year or more before they even think about spawning. It may be best to keep them apart until they’re sexually mature.

Crazygar: Does anyone else have a question for Mike?

Crazygar: I think Erin has one…

Crazygar: hold on folks…

soul-hugger: On aesthetics: we all have fish we find either “interesting” or “beautiful”. Which fish do you find most beautiful, and why?

MikeH: I think the most stunning fish that I have ever seen is a wild type male green sailfin molly courting a female in the sunlight. The colors are unbelievable. It looks like they were painted on. And the way he carries himself – with fins fully flared and bending to catch the sunlight as if to say “look at me” – and I do.

soul-hugger: Wonderful things become visible in the sunlight… that seems to be the case for our Western Rainbowfish, who show their best colours in the morning when a thin beam of sunlight finds its way to the tank…

soul-hugger: Thanks, Mike

MikeH: Rainbows in the sunlight are stunning, too.

soul-hugger: I tend to like fish with streamlined bodies.

Crazygar: Ok, next is JB… you are up buddy…

J.B.: Mike, you said earlier, you keep/kept some Tanganyikan species

MikeH: Yes. Mostly smaller ones.

J.B.: I’ve currently got a 125g Tang community with several species in it to include N. sexfasciatus ‘gold’

MikeH: Sounds nice!

J.B.: they’ve been doing a lot of mouth-fighting lately, and I’m wondering if you’ve any experience with them

MikeH: I haven’t kept sexfasciatus specifically, but in general cichlid mouth fighting is a way of testing strength between same sex fish and a way of measuring a potential mate in mixed sex fish.

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J.B.: I’m almost positive I’ve two females and two males…one of the females has claimed a spot under some rocks and the two males have been doing the fighting thing right above it for about a month now

MikeH: Are the fish similar sized? I think that is the best way to sex sexfasciatus – males are larger and females smaller.

J.B.: yes two are smaller and two are quite a bit more stout

MikeH: Males are supposed to be pretty territorial once they reach maturity. That might be what you are seeing.

J.B.: the one smaller one stays to the other side of the tank

MikeH: The female they are “fighting” over may have reached maturity and they are looking to mate. You might want to remove one of the males and see what happens.

J.B.: I’m curious if the presence of the tankmates might be the problem keeping them from spawning…they are the largest species in the tank though

MikeH: The others might be keeping them from spawning, but they do have to compete in the wild. And maybe the distractions will keep the males from killing one another.

MikeH: I would be willing to bet they are just getting ready to spawn, and the two males reached maturity with the female at the same time, so they’re just having to settle a few things before they can get down to mating.

J.B.: the other species are A. calvus, A. compressiceps, N. brichardi, N. leleupi, S. petricola and J. marlieri…they are all well balanced and there is no real aggression in the tank

J.B.: I hope so

J.B.: Thanks for the confirmation!

MikeH: The petricola would be the only ones to watch for disruption. They like to get into places they aren’t welcome. Once you have fry, watch the others.

Crazygar: And our final question goes to discusfishies….

Crazygar: Discusfishies, you are up…

discusfishies: Cool, has anyone ever heard of using a willow branch for clearing up green water?

MikeH: You mean just putting some cuttings from a willow tree in the water?

discusfishies: Yea I’ve heard it sprouts roots, sucks up all the nutrients and outcompetes the algae

discusfishies: I’m going through green water outbrake that’s why

MikeH: I’ve not heard of folks using willow trees, but you can do something similar with Philodendrons, Irises, and other plants.

MikeH: Irises especially really suck up the nutrients from the water.

MikeH: To use the irises you put the plants in a small net breeder. They soak up the nutrients as they grow.

discusfishies: Do you have any suggestions for preventing green water?

discusfishies: Cool maybe I’ll check that out thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!

MikeH: The easiest way to remove green water is to filter it out with a diatom filter. Then do a couple of water changes to get the nutrient level down in the tank. Next you have to figure out where the nutrients come from…

discusfishies: My tanks by a window but I can’t move it

MikeH: Discusfishies – do you have a background on the tank?

MikeH: I use contact paper…

discusfishies: No but I looking

freshfish: discusfishies- have you ever hooked up the timer for your light or is that still on all day?

Crazygar: Thanks all!

FredO: Thanks Mike and Gary!!!! Events like this fuel my enthusiasm for the hobby.

ilroost: thanks mike, learned alot

freshfish: Thanks very much Mike!! A very enjoyable evening.

Crazygar: Mike, you’ve been a great sport (especially put up with us TFH Forum Staff.) I would like to thank all whom attended this evening with the live chat with Mike Hellweg. I hope it’s been as informative as I have found it and I am glad you all made the effort to attend. Thanks and a good and safe evening to all.

Eupterus: Thanks for coming MikeH, sorry I didn’t know or I’d have come earlier.

MikeH: Thanks all! Great questions. If you have more, you can PM me and maybe I can figure that out over the next few days…

freshfish: *mails Gary some more eggs as a thank you present*

ScottFish: Same time, same place, next month?

J.B.: You’ve done a lot for the hobby, Mike and we all appreciate it! Thanks for your time

Crazygar: No more eggs!

freshfish: hehehe

discusfishies: Thanks this is soo cool!

Crazygar: Mike, thanks, this was a truly great interview! Like Ted, you were a great Interviewee! If you wish to remain, you are free to do so, but I am afraid I have dinner to make and if I don’t eat, I am going to eat our fish…

ScottFish: Gary, Erin, now about that breeding program…….

Eupterus: OH no!…lol

Crazygar: Thanks all, and have a wonderful evening! Scott, you are an evil man.

MikeH: I’ll have to head out, too. Thanks again everyone.

freshfish: nite gar

Crazygar: Bye Mike!

freshfish: nite Mike and thanks again

Eupterus: Bummer.

jpguppy08: Thanks all!

soul-hugger: Thanks, Mike, it was nice chatting with you

Crazygar: Have a safe and good evening everyone! Good night.


Posted May 25th, 2011.

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The Heat and Humidity of Summer

By Mike Hellweg

One of the unexpected problems that I encountered during this year-long contest was temperature control in the fishroom. My fishroom has been up and running for nearly 15 years, so this year’s temperature fluctuations in the summer were a bit of a surprise. When I built my fishroom in the mid-1990s, building code required that I seal the room with thick plastic on the inside of the insulation before installing wall board. This created a nice, warm box which is perfect for fish for most of the year, and it keeps humidity in the room from escaping to the rest of the house.

The bare concrete floor serves as a heat sink that helps hold heat in the fishroom, slowly releasing it in the cooler evenings to keep temperatures fairly constant. I have the room on our home’s central air and heating system, which also helps to maintain a fairly constant temperature in the upper 70s throughout the year, except during the heat of summer, when temperatures may creep up into the 80s for a few days during hot spells.

This past summer was just a bit warmer than normal—okay, it was a good ole’ fashioned three-H (hazy, hot, and humid) St. Louis summer. We experienced temperatures in the 90s or low 100s for much of the summer, with an average temperature about 5° above normal. This, coupled with the fact that it did not cool off too much in the evening, allowed heat to slowly accumulate in my fishroom in spite of air conditioning. Some days even the cold water coming out of the tap was in the mid-80s! By the end of July, temperatures in my fishroom were in the mid-80s, and the upper row of tanks had reached 85°. There were a few days in early August when temperatures in the upper tanks got up near 90. The apistos and a few bubblenest building anabantoids absolutely loved it, and fry grew quickly, but most of the fish just sat and looked at each other for several weeks during the height of the heat spell. It wasn’t until late August that things finally cooled off and the fish started thinking about spawning again.

Another problem could have been humidity, which would make everything worse as far as I was concerned, but I addressed that problem during construction so humidity would not come back to haunt me. As I researched my construction plan, I heard horror stories about mold traveling all over the house from a poorly constructed fishroom. I was determined not to deal with mold. This was before we knew that mold was also a hazard to health, so as the character Barney Fife would say, I “nipped it in the bud.”

First off, I built my fishroom walls an inch away from the outside walls to allow a path for air circulation around the fishroom. To control insects that might find this area comfy, I covered the floor of this airway and the edges of the foundation above it with a layer of diatomaceous earth. The boards themselves were treated with a solution of boric acid. The sill around the fishroom is up off the concrete, separated by specialized sill insulation, and I sealed around the baseboards with clear silicone caulk to keep any water spills in the fishroom. So far this has worked well.

After insulating the room walls and ceiling, I installed the vapor barrier and the wall board. For the ceiling I added an insulated drop ceiling designed for wet locations—it is essentially a thick, rigid fiberglass board with an acoustic, water resistant cover on the inside. This has worked exceptionally well for both sound insulation and temperature insulation. When I’m working in my fishroom it is nice and relaxingly quiet. I can’t even hear the phone ring! All of the tanks are covered to slow evaporation and control humidity further.

I installed a simple bath fan designed to move the entire volume of air in my fishroom every four minutes. This is controlled by a humidistat set to 50 percent humidity. Mold grows above 55 percent humidity, so this has kept the room comfortable and mold free for 15 plus years.

An exhaust fan helps keep the humidity in Mike's fishroom below 50 percent.

 It pumps the air outside via a dryer vent, and a couple of years ago I added an extra nylon (metal can rust) damper to the exhaust vent line to keep cold air from backing up into the fishroom during a power outage. The fishroom door has a slightly larger opening underneath, and one above that allow for fresh air from the rest of the house to be drawn into the fishroom when the fan is running. A nice, simple design that keeps humidity under control, but even with air conditioning it can’t quite control the heat when there is just too darn much of it during the heat of summer. I’ll keep working on that…

Posted January 19th, 2011.

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Mini Filters and Lasagna Containers

By Mike Hellweg

A completed mini filter in a lasagna container.

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the proverb goes. When I began using a large number of lasagna containers for newly hatched fry, I needed something to hold an airstone in place. They really don’t need filtration as I do an almost 100 percent water change every day, but still, insurance is a good thing and since I was using an airstone anyway, why not use a filter to hold the end down in the shallow water?

I couldn’t find a commercial design that would work in the very shallow trays, so I tried several homemade designs that others have used over the years, especially fellow killifish hobbyists since they use lots of small containers. After a few failed attempts I started looking at other things I had available in my fishy parts bin, which is full of all kinds of accumulated bits and pieces. I also started looking through my fishroom closet, which has shelves of accumulated filter parts, chemicals, and other things that I used at one point but no longer use. I keep these around, just in case.

I noticed that I had a large bag of sponge filter cores from my friend Ray “Kingfish” Lucas, which he gave me a few years ago. I used some of them, cut in half, to fill the overflows in my tanks to keep small fish from going down the drain. They fit perfectly in ¾-inch PVC fittings. That got me thinking…

I came up with a simple design made of ¾-inch PVC. It takes a tee, a 90° elbow, a U-bend piece of rigid airline tubing, and a small plastic airstone, along with two halves of the sponge filter core.

Using ¾-inch PVC, a tee, a 90° elbow, a U-bend piece of rigid airline tubing, and a small plastic airstone, along with two halves of the sponge filter core, you can create a mini filter.

Drill a small hole in the outside bend of the elbow just big enough to tightly wedge the U-bend rigid tubing through it. I cut one end of the bend about halfway down, too, so that it doesn’t stick out of the elbow for better flow. I cut the soft plastic airstone in half, and insert it over the inner part of the U-bend tubing. The elbow then goes onto the center fitting of the tee, and the sponge filter cores go in either end.

The airstone installed in the mini filter.

Add a bit of fine gravel from an established tank to the inside of the tee, and there you have a perfectly weighted, seasoned tiny filter that will provide circulation and filtration in a 2-inch deep lasagna tray without causing any harm to the young fish.

The lasagna containers that I use are the disposable containers made by several large container manufacturers and sold in the kitchen gadget area of major retailers. They are approximately 10 x 13 x 2½ inches and hold about a gallon and a quarter or so. They have about the same surface area as a 5 gallon tank. They are lightweight, easily cleaned, and have snap on lids so they can be stacked, allowing you to keep a lot of fry in a small area.

They are easy to work with and easy to move, so I can stack them on a shelf in the fishroom all day, and simply move them to the counter next to the sink for water changes and fry feeding. They are perfect for hatching eggs and for newly free swimming fry. I put them on a shelf up high in the room as it is warmest there (around 78° to 80° most of the year) and the fry generally grow more quickly in warmer water. The small size keeps the fry close to their food so they can spend all of their energy in growing for that first crucial week to 10 days. After this, they are gently moved to 5 or 10 gallon tanks and converted over to brine shrimp and microworms.

Posted January 5th, 2011.

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By Mike Hellweg

Over the past few years, as I’ve been visiting various clubs and getting to see other’s fishrooms, I’ve come across a “new” type of filter. They are easy to make, easy to use, and require little maintenance (all things I really like!). Apparently they’ve been popular for many years in Europe, appearing in the 1960s in Hamburg, Germany. The Germans call them Mättenfilters. When they migrated to other countries, this became “Hamburg filter” or simply “wall filter.” A few years ago, Stephan Tanner of Columbus, Ohio started importing the special rigid foam material  to make them from Europe and selling it. It’s a bit different from sponge filter foam in that it is in sheets, it is able to stand upright, and water flows directly through it. He also came up with a great design that works very well and is very easy to make. At this point I believe he is the sole distributor in the USA.

A mattenfilter.

Essentially, the filter becomes one of the short walls of the tank. This works really well in a fishroom setup when tanks are set up end on and one side becomes the back of the tank. These filters essentially disappear, as they are the entire back of the tank. The coarse foam material is also excellent for plants like Java moss, Java fern and Anubias to attach themselves and form a sort of living background. Behind the wall filter is a small area about ¾ to one inch or so in depth. This forms an in-tank settlement well where detritus can collect and be siphoned off. It also works as a great place to put the heater so it is out of the way. This is also where most of my overflows are located, hiding them and preventing even young fish from going over the wall. They give a clean, neat appearance to the entire tank, and make it very easy to catch fish when the time comes as there is no filter, heater or overflow fitting for them to hide around.

The parts needed to create a mattenfilter.

Essentially all you do is cut the foam to the dimensions of the tank, just a hair oversize so it fits snugly. This can be done with a straightedge and a sharp knife. Then cut a small hole in the center near the top (some folks cut a notch right at the top). This is where the return flow pipe will go. The return pipe simply consists of a length of PVC pipe, a 90° elbow, a piece of fiberglass soffit screen material (larger than window screen so it doesn’t clog over time), and a zip tie to hold the soffit screen piece to the end of the pipe. This keeps overly zealous fish from swimming down the pipe into the back area of the tank (loaches and danios especially LOVE to do this). On the plus side, this is where I’ve found baby Myer’s kuhli loaches Pangio myersi on a couple of occasions, including right at the end of the Breeder’s Challenge. It’s a nice safe place full of food.

Drill a hole in the rigid foam and place netting over it to prevent fish from swimming through.

Anyway, getting back to construction—drill a small hole in the top of the elbow to allow a piece of airline tubing to fit through it, and add an airstone in the uplift part of the tube. This will create a gentle current moving water from one end of the tank through the filter to the other end. The filter will become covered with nitrifying bacteria, but the flow will be slow enough that the filter won’t become clogged with detritus, needing to be cleaned regularly.

Drill a hole in the PVC pipe for the airline tubing.

Stephan says they just need to be rinsed once a year, but so far I’ve had some going as long as 18 months and they have yet to need anything but a rotation of the airstone as it clogs and flow slows down. To clean the tanks, all I do is move a HOT filter from tank to tank once a month. Of course, water changes are also simplified as all I need to do is run water to the tank and it flows out the overflow and down the drain.

Posted December 8th, 2010.


Infusoria, an Instant Live Food

By Mike Hellweg

Throughout this challenge I have had many successful spawns from egglayersanabantoids, tetras, rasboras, barbs, danios, etc.  All of these fish produce large numbers of tiny fry.  These fry require tiny foods as first foods.  While there are many excellent commercial fry foods available, not all fry recognize these as food and some will starve to death surrounded by what we think is the perfect food.  For this reason, among many others, I prefer to use live foods.

Infusoria, a type of live food, can be easily cultured in plastic jars.

Just as with brine shrimp and microworms, I have had to step up production for the challenge.  In the past, I’ve maintained pure cultures of paramecia for first foods for egglayer fry, but these can be hit and miss unless they are maintained regularly, and they can be too large for some fry.  For the contest, in order to produce a large enough quantity of tiny food on a regular basis and not create too large an amount of work, I decided to go back to what I used in the old daysinfusoria.

Infusoria is not a specific type of animal, but rather a soup consisting of all kinds of one-celled and miniature multi-celled animals such as free floating algae, motile algae, ciliates of all kinds, rotifers, and more.  It will vary from culture to culture, depending on the dominant life forms in your tanks.  One of the great things about infusoria is that there will be a variety of critters of differing sizes and with different movement so that just about any type of fry will find something that it recognizes as food and can eat.

There are as many ways to culture infusoria as there are hobbyists who culture it.  The following method works for me.  I’ve used it for many years.  I also asked several friends to try it while I was writing my live foods book just to be sure it would work for them, too.

Steps to Culture Infusoria

Start with a clean, sterilized jar.  For the challenge I’ve been using quart sized peanut butter jars, as I have access to a large number of them.  You can use anything up to a gallon sized pickle jar.  Larger cultures are unwieldy and unnecessary.  I start a new culture (or two) every day, depending on how many spawns I think I will have to feed.  You can feed several small spawns or one large spawn from each culture jar.  Fill the jar with water from a healthy, well established (preferably planted) aquarium.  Some hobbyists use plain dechlorinated water, others use boiled water, but I’ve found that water from a healthy tank really gets the culture going quickly.

I add a couple of grains of boiled white rice.  Boiling starts the breakdown of the cellular structure and helps to get bacterial activity off to a good start.  You can use anything vegetable from rice to wheat to peas, potatoes, turnips or whatever you have available.  Within hours, bacteria will begin to decompose this food source, and the animals in the water will begin to feast on the bacterial bloom and reproduce.  These will become the food for our baby fish.

Grains of rice can be added to a new infusoria culture to serve as a food source.

Depending on your particular culture animals, jars can be ready for harvest in just two to three days, or take a week or more.  You can harvest as soon as you can see a grayish swarming cloud in the water column.  Use a baster to suck water and critters from the middle of this grayish swarm.  This can be squirted into a larger container such as a catch cup and from here be fed to baby fish, or squirt the baster directly into the fry container.  Within a few hours you will see that all of the fry have bulging bellies as they are feeding.  I feed the fry twice a day.  Some breeders will simply dump water from the culture into the fry tank, but I prefer to have a bit more control and use the baster.

A week-old infusoria culture that is ready to harvest to feed to fish.

After a week to ten days the culture will begin to smell pretty nasty.  For this reason, and to ensure domestic tranquility (the “alluring” scents from an infusoria culture on the edge of going bad have a tendency to seek out the one person in the household who finds them the most repugnant), I only harvest from each culture jar one time.  I remove as many infusorians as possible, then clean and sterilize the culture jar and start a new culture with new rice grains, water, and a squirt of the infusorians from the old culture.  Set aside a baster full of the animals and use it to inoculate a new culture container to give that a head start.

After a week or so of feeding infusoria, I will begin to mix in newly hatched brine shrimp and microworms.  When I see that all of the fry have bright pink to orange bellies from feeding on the shrimp, I discontinue using infusoria.

Posted November 18th, 2010.


A bit of housekeeping

By Mike Hellweg

Many of you have sent a lot of encouraging emails, letters and notes, and a lot of condolences and sympathy notes when Mom passed away.  Thank you for all of them!  All were very much appreciated and knowing I have a lot of friends out there really helped out.

In some of those, you have also asked questions.  In addition, some of the folks attending various talks I’ve given have also come forward with questions and comments, so I thought I’d address those here in the next couple of blog entries.

Several people have asked about how I do water changes and keep the gravel clean in all of those tanks, and how much time I spend in the fishroom each day.  First, realize that I didn’t just set up a fishroom when I first got started.  This has slowly grown over the past 35 plus years.  I started small with one tank, and grew slowly as space and finances allowed.  And even when I got the chance to set up a fishroom, it took years of planning, tinkering, and changing to get it right.  I now have it down to a science.  Each day I do water changes on part of the fishroom, then while I’m feeding I refill the water barrels and treat them to get them ready for the next day.  All of this takes about two hours each day.  So over the course of the week, I spend about 14 hours feeding and doing water changes.  Some people spend more than that in a single day watching TV or on the computer, so it doesn’t really take as much time as it sounds.  Plus, I enjoy it.  So it doesn’t even seem like any time at all.

I have drilled all of the tanks (I learned how to do this from AKA Chairman Jack Heller, a member of my local club and friend for many years. Thanks Jack!) and installed a bulkhead overflow in each that flows down to a drain line that runs around the room and out to a floor drain in the laundry room next to my fishroom.  I have a series of 55-gallon drums all drilled and plumbed together with special bulkhead fittings designed for round containers.  This allows me to fill the drums with cold water, treat it, aerate it and heat it before using it.  These are then plumbed into a pump that connects to a simple garden hose.  The plug for the pump is plugged into a normal outlet with a remote control switch so I can turn the line on and off from up to 50 feet away.  Eventually this will be run into a system of pipes and valves to allow me to run water directly to each tank without the need for a hose, but that will have to wait until the contest is over.

The next question I have received several times is why I would use the stick on liquid crystal thermometers when “I should know better” (those are a couple of people’s exact words!).  I have a reason for everything I do or use in my fishroom.  Everything is something that I have thought about, tried and tested over many years. I do know that they are not always accurate, but I’m not using them to give me an exact temperature–and for freshwater fish an exact temperature is not really needed.  If I need that, I have a lab thermometer that can give me a temperature accurate to within less than a tenth of 1 degree.  Fortunately, I don’t need that often. I just use it to calibrate the LC thermometers to know how far off they are.  Guess what?  They are only a degree or two off most of the time!  Not too bad. But the main reason I use them is for pointing out a problem. A quick scan of the rack, and I can see that there aren’t any problems with temperature in any of the tanks.  If one of them is way off of the others, I know there might be a problem that needs to be investigated further.  A simple, cheap device that works exactly how I need it to work.  What more could a hobbyist want?

Notice I am using an overflow system.  This means I don’t use a gravel cleaner.  Most of the tanks are bare bottom or have a half inch layer of fine sand.  If I need to clean the gunk from the bottom of those tanks I use a diatom filter or even just a simple power filter hanging on the tank for a few hours.

The next most common question is what I feed the babies.  I don’t use commercial fry diets.  Not that there is anything wrong with them, but I prefer to use live foods.  For tiny fry that need something small, I used to feed a lot of paramecium.  But during this contest, I’ve needed things of various sizes for different species, so I’ve taken to using a lot of infusoria cultures.  They’re quick and easy to set up, and I don’t have to maintain them between uses like I do ramped-up paramecium cultures.  Those can also crash quickly, and during the first several months of this contest I had a few things going on so that keeping a bunch of paramecium cultures going was the farthest thing from my mind.  Infusoria cultures can be set up the day before the spawn is set up and will be ready to go when the young are free swimming a week or so later.

After that, my most common food is microworms.  It doesn’t really matter which variety you use, as even “pure” microworm cultures are different species from place to place around the country.  So get whatever you can locally and culture them in whatever way is easiest for you.  Currently, the ones I’m using are those called “banana worms.”  There are also potato worms, wheat worms, Walter worms, microworms, etc.  All are pretty similar in nutritional value, based on the media that you use.  I use a commercial blended human baby cereal and yeast.  Mix it with dechlorinated water to a pasty consistency and it’s good to go for several weeks.  Once the worms start climbing the sides, your culture is ready to harvest.  Wipe the worms from the sides of the culture, and also dip into the media to get young worms.  That will give you a variety of sizes to feed your fry.  Adults of many smaller fish species also love microworms!  But don’t wipe everything away or you won’t have enough to be able to harvest from the same culture more than once or twice a week.  I keep several cultures going all at once.  Along with one daily feeding of microworms, I also feed newly hatched brine shrimp once a day.

Next blog I’ll cover brine shrimp.  That’s enough of an issue to cover an entire entry by itself.

Posted May 11th, 2010.

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Fish, Fish, Everywhere a Fish!

By Mike Hellweg

I’ll bet you can imagine that as this contest progresses Ted and I occasionally run out of room.  Ted mentioned in an earlier blog entry how he addresses this.  Well, with more than 70 tanks dedicated to this contest and with a bumpy start, I hadn’t yet really run into this problem until a few weeks ago.  Now that my breeding program is chugging away, tanks are filling up quickly.  Plus, before the contest started  I had decided to switch out most of my commercial sponge filters for home-made, wall-type sponge filters, so at any one time I’ve got a few tanks out of commission as I make the switch.

Long-term, this will be a great benefit to the fish, as each filter provides much more surface area for beneficial bacteria, and with the filter taking up an entire wall, there are no spots for the fish to hide behind as there are with conventional sponge filters, making moving fish much easier.  Short term, this switch can tie up some much needed glass box real estate while the filter gets up and running.  As I set up the “new” tanks, I keep the bioload low for a few weeks, add extra plants, and seed the new filter with “squeeze-ins” from my old filters.  So far this strategy is working pretty well.

I don’t have problems with the scatterers and other similar fish because I don’t set them up to spawn until there is a tank available.  But what I do find is that as more than 25 pairs of cichlids, some dozen or so livebearers, and a half dozen or so mouthbrooding anabantoids keep spawning on a somewhat unpredictable basis, to keep new fry from being eaten by the parents I occasionally have to find room for the fry for a week or so until another tank opens up.  The leftover filter material from cutting the wall filters gave me an idea.

I have found that disposable lasagna containers are almost ideal fry tanks for newly free swimming fry.  They give the fry plenty of surface area, and give them a bit of room to spread out.  But there isn’t too much room in there so the fry don’t have to go too far to hunt down their food.  The containers are inexpensive, so I can always have extras on hand.  They are also lightweight and easy to move, so I can do a water change on all of them every day in just a few minutes.   But there is no commercial filter designed to handle small tanks like this, and even with only a dozen or two fry, I like to have filters in these small tanks as water quality can change quickly.  Some of the killie guys are making tiny filters out of PVC tees and filter floss.  This provided inspiration for my mini-filters, made of half inch CPVC pipe and fittings and some leftover material from the wall filters.  This little device gives the fry a safe place to grow for a week or so until I can move them to a tank.  If necessary, they work well for a couple of weeks.  I add a dozen or so daphnia, a couple of ramshorn snails, and a clump of Java moss to each lasagna container, too.

Posted April 30th, 2010.



By Mike Hellweg

The past several weeks have been pretty hectic with two speaking trips and several club auctions here in the Midwest, not to mention a visit to my local club (the Missouri Aquarium Society, Inc. – aka MASI) by TFH Editor David Boruchowitz.  All of this fishy stuff, along with a LOT of spawning activity and changing over sponge filters in my fishroom, kept me pretty busy.  Time slipped away, and I realized I hadn’t posted a blog in quite a while.  I apologize!

As I mentioned last entry, I spent some time trading fish and visiting local big box stores and independent fish stores, and I came home with a nice haul.  Unfortunately, as can sometimes be expected in the dead of winter, some of those fish were cold stressed and came down with ich.  Placing fish into quarantine helped and within a week or so I was back to concentrating on breeding the new fish.

I went back to my roots in the hobby—some of the miniature scatterers like zebra, leopard, and pearl danios, white clouds, and some easy tetras like emperors, rainbow emperors, black skirt, and diamond tetras just to name a few.  I had forgotten how much fun it can be to have a tank full of miniature zebras darting every which way and attacking the food every time I fed them!  White clouds are one of my all time favorite fish, and it’s been a while since I had them.  I now have a 10-gallon colony tank full of them.  It may sound strange to some of you, but some of the most pleasurable fish are also some of the easiest to care for and breed.

Ever since my beloved pet lungfish took a chunk out of my hand, I have not kept any fish larger than 4 inches, and the vast majority have been under 2 inches.  This was also practical, since for many years my fishroom was in a spare bedroom and the floor couldn’t take a lot of weight, so in order to have several tanks they had to be small.  This became my trademark— miniature odd balls.

I mention this because I deviated from this longtime philosophy for a few weeks.  A friend brought several pairs of medium sized cichlids over and they reminded me once again why I keep miniature fish.  So I have to thank him, in a way, for reminding me of my real interest.  The Texas cichlids spawned quickly and repeatedly.  They are incredibly beautiful fish, but also incredibly aggressive by my standards.  The West African Stomatepia mariae spawned and then went on a killing spree.   The larger male Lake Victorian haps (Matumbi hunters) “went cichlid” on each other and all of the other haps in their tank.   Everything was fine in this tank.  A female was holding, so I gently removed her in a clear glass bowl to give her some peace and quiet in her own tank to brood for a few days before stripping the eggs.  Overnight, the big male decided that he didn’t like something.  Not sure what.

I’ve still got one tank of seven 9-inch Oreochromis niloticus, but as soon as they spawn, they will move on to another friend in our club who loves fish like this and has much more room for them.  Right now they are happily eating everything I feed them in a 75-gallon tank, and each fish has grown at least an inch since I got the group about four weeks ago.  I hope they spawn soon!  I was amazed by these fish.  They are beautiful, very outgoing, and they eat EVERYTHING!  They even lift their entire head out of the water when I open the tank top to feed them.  Pretty cool, but definitely not my cup of tea.  They cleared the side and back glass of years’ worth of algae growth, cleaned out a well established blackworm population in the gravel, and even ate the Java fern and Java moss in the tank!

More next week…

Posted April 20th, 2010.

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Why do I use Poecilia wingei for Endler’s Livebearer?

By Mike Hellweg

While I have thought that Endler’s Livebearer is unique since I first received a pair from super-hobbyist Sallie Boggs in 1992, I was fine with it just being a population of P. reticulata on the edge of speciation. As there was nothing in the literature, and no such thing as the Internet as we know it today, I based this on my own side-by-side observations and the results of attempted crosses I made with both wild (from a collection on the Orinoco in central Venezuela) and domestic P. reticulata and P. picta throughout the early 1990’s.

I was as excited as all other livebearer enthusiasts when Endler’s first got a scientific name in 2005; then disappointed as most when Breden argued against Poeser’s work a couple of years later.  I read the Schores et al paper with interest, expecting them to discount P. wingei again.  But they did not.  In fact, I think (as a hobbyist!) they make a very clear case for P. wingei.

But for the sake of accuracy I must unequivocally state that I am a hobbyist, not a scientist. So I usually follow what William Eschmeyer reports in the CalAcademy Catalog of Fishes when I’m working on an article. Eschmeyer tends to be very conservative, and doesn’t jump on a new description until it has withstood peer review. In the case of P. wingei, he didn’t add that to the catalog for quite a while after the Poeser et al description in 2005. In checking the Catalog for this article, I see it’s current status (as of January 2010) is as a valid species. Based on Eschmeyer and the Schores paper, I have used P. wingei instead of P. reticulata “Endler’s” or P. sp. Endler‘s, as many hobbyists have done.

Posted February 19th, 2010.

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Breeding Common Fish

By Mike Hellweg

As promised, I spent some time in a couple of local big box stores and a couple of local fish stores. In both big box stores the pickings were mighty slim for me— mostly big fish like cichlids. But there were a few nice small fish from which I selected some potential breeding stock.

The local fish stores were even better. I was able to go into one and find several pairs of tetras and barbs that were old enough for spawning. Even better, in one I was able to get them all on sale at a huge discount! And in the other, I was able to trade a bunch of young fish from the contest for several pairs and a couple of breeding groups that were almost ready to go. This illustrates one of the great reasons to support your local shop—I was able to trade in some of my breeders to one local shop and get a couple more species in exchange.

So in a couple of hours, with a couple of stops, spending only about $25, I re-homed a large number of fish and brought home enough fish to keep me busy for at least a couple of weeks in the contest.

Obviously, all of the fish, even those I get from friends, go into quarantine first. No sense introducing disease into an established tank.

Here are some of the fish I found:


Pseudocrenilabrus philander

Livebearers and Killies:

Wild-type green swordtails Xiphophorus hellerii

Coral red platies Xiphophorus sp. domestic platy

Sunset variatus Xiphophorus sp. domestic variatus


Corydoras narcissus (marked as skunk cories – Corydoras arcuatus)

Corydoras paleatus

Egg Scatterers:

Pearl danio Danio albolineatus – these were on sale for just 11 cents each!

Zebra danio Danio rerio – 11 cents each!

Blue danio Danio sp. – 11 cents each!

Fireline danio Devario sondhi

Black skirt tetra Gymnocorymbus ternetzi

Silvertip tetra Hasemania nana

Glowlight tetra Hemigrammus erythrozonus

Head and tail light tetra Hemigrammus ocellifer

Pretty tetra Hemigrammus pulcher

Ember tetra Hyphessobrycon amandae

Columbian redfin blue tetra Hyphessobrycon columbianus

Sickle fin tetra Hyphessobrycon robertsi

Serpae tetra Hyphessobrycon serpae

Neon tetra Paracheirodon innesi

Tiger barb Puntius anchisporus

Melon barb Puntius melanampyx

Black ruby barb Puntius nigrofasciatus

Gold barb Puntius semifasciolatus or Puntius “sachsi”

White cloud mountain minnow Tanichthys albonubes

Penguin tetras Thayeria obliqua


Honey gouramis Colisa chuna

Pearl gouramis Trichogaster leeri

Gold gouramis Trichogaster trichopterus

Marine Fish:

Tank Raised Bangaii Cardinals Pterapogon kauderni

And a group of spotted loaches – no idea what species they are but they are easily sexable, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

Since Ted mentions it, I’ll stress again how important quarantine is to success with aquarium fish. Several of the neon tetras and fireline danios came down with ich soon after arriving home. It is likely the cold weather somewhere in transit, either at the airport here before they made it to the shop, or in the delivery truck stressed them and made them susceptible. Fortunately, I followed my normal procedure and put the new fish in quarantine tanks. The ich only affected two of those tanks. I was able to treat it immediately since I was watching for it, and only lost a couple of fish. The rest came through with flying colors. Of course this sets any breeding attempts with those two species back several weeks as they will need time to recover. But I’ve got plenty of fish to work with for the next few weeks.

Posted February 12th, 2010.

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